Disaster prep: Expect the unexpected

Exit routes from Dolores are limited

Rebecca Samulski discusses being fire wise for homes surrounded by forests.

The expressions of shock and concern last November on the faces of residents as they gathered at the Dolores Community last October during the Roatcap Fire evacuation were understandable.

A fast-moving wildfire south of Dolores, in a rural area scattered with homes, barns and horse pens, had exploded in minutes, causing a towering smoke plume and creating a disturbing orange glow visible from town. No homes were lost, but tempers flared as people fought to reach their property and horses in the path of the flames.

Where would you go if there was a major disaster in your town? Would you be prepared and in a position to help, or would you be the one in need?

Those questions and many others like them were posed to an audience of 40 attending an emergency preparedness meeting in Dolores last week.

The topic was what to do in case of wildfire, flood or a 100-year snow event, and by a show of hands, most were not very prepared to survive a major catastrophe.

Coming together with neighbors to have a conversation about what a community would do is a good first step, said Rebecca Samulski, Montezuma County Firewise coordinator.

"Get to know your neighbors; understand what their issues are," she said. "In rural areas you will have to depend on each other because help might not be immediately available."

Having a plan everyone in the family is aware of is a key component. What to do with horses and pets, how to help the elderly and disabled in a crisis, what to grab when there is an evacuation - those are all issues that need to be worked out beforehand.

For Dolores residents, living in a narrow valley creates certain risks, observed mayor Val Truelson.

"If snowpack reaches 150 percent, there is flood potential in town during the runoff," he said, "especially if it rains on top of that."

Two emergency sirens in town could be activated to alert residents of a dangerous situation.

Fire prevention is especially important in towns like Dolores, Rico and Ophir that are surrounded by forest dried out by a persistent drought, Samulski told attendees.

Create a "defensible space" of five feet around your home, taking out trees that overhang the house, clearing out shrubbery, and watering around the home will help save property and give firefighters a better chance.

"A wildfire on the outskirts of town could create ember showers that ignite leaves in the gutter, or dried grasses on the yard," Samulski said, triggering a house fire that could spread to other homes.

A fire-storm could be the result. Where would you go? There are limited ways in and out of town, and a forest fire could block exits.


Karen Dickson, an emergency preparedness coordinator for public health, said expecting the unexpected is a good frame of mind to adopt.

For example, aware that highways 491 and 160 are both hazardous materials routes, she said, with trucks carrying anything from deadly chlorine gas and radioactive materials to flammable fuels and biohazards.

The lockdowns and gunfire during the violent Four Corners Manhunt in 1998 are still on the minds of law enforcement.

"We could be a soft target for terrorism," Dickson said. "We only have one fiber optic line into Montezuma County' what would happen if it were compromised."

A technician in the room said there is a redundant system in place designed to compensate for a major outage of the fiber network to keep emergency communications running.

"Consider situations and plan how you would react: Flu pandemic, contaminated water sources, poor air quality like we have had from local fires," Dickson said.

"Where at the defibrillators in this town?" someone asked. No one knew for sure, but knowing that type of information beforehand can save lives.

"Where should people meet in case of a disaster?"

"Wal-Mart!" someone shouted out to laughter, although for emergency supplies, it is a good source.

But Cindi Shank, of the Southwest Colorado Red Cross, pointed out that residents overestimate how long food and water would last in grocery stores if everyone suddenly needed them.

"In three days, it would all be gone if deliveries stopped," Shank said.

Preparing an emergency to-go box is essential. An old suitcase makes a convenient case. Water, dried foods that don't require cooking, flashlights and batteries, a hand-crank radio, duct tape, a set of clothing, a good pair of shoes, cash, first-aid kit, important papers and medicines are a few of the items to keep ready to grab in case of an emergency.

"The Black Forest fire destroyed 500 homes," Shank said. "I was on the scene and the victims had no idea it would move that fast; it looked like a nuclear bomb went off. It was the saddest thing I have ever seen."

The message of the meeting was to prepare now, not when a crisis is happening. Communicate with neighbors and be prepared to help the elderly, sick, and disabled in an emergency. Another tip: always keep at least half tank of gas to avoid gas lines during an evacuation.

The next emergency preparedness meetings are in Mancos on July 30 at 6 p.m. at the library, and Aug. 1 at the Cortez library at 6:30 p.m.